These US citizens went to fight for Israel. Now they’re hostages in Gaza.

(RNS) — After graduating from Tenafly High School in New Jersey two years ago, Edan Alexander enrolled in an Israeli army prep seminar to see if he would be a good fit for the Israel Defense Forces.

Both of Alexander’s Israeli-born parents had served in the IDF. His grandparents lived in Tel Aviv. He was conversant in Hebrew. And he had been attending an Israeli scouting movement, the Tzofim, while in high school.

So after completing the three-month army prep program tailored to Jews who live outside of Israel, he enlisted.

On the morning of Oct. 7, Alexander, 20, was on guard duty at a military outpost about 1.5 miles from the Gaza border when Hamas terrorists stormed his watchtower and took him captive. He has not been heard from since, and his parents, Adi and Yael Alexander, are working feverishly to advocate for his release.

Alexander is among the 100 hostages still believed to be alive in a network of tunnels beneath southern Gaza. Of those, six are U.S. citizens and three, including Alexander, are serving in the IDF.

The Alexander family in 2022. Edan, from left, mother Yael, Roy, Mika and father Adi. (Courtesy photo)

The Alexander family in 2022. Edan, from left, mother Yael, Roy, Mika and father Adi. (Courtesy photo)

Adi Alexander, Edan’s father, said his son “just wanted to do the right thing, the noble thing.”

“When you serve for the IDF, you basically serve a country that is a key ally for the United States,” Adi said.

An estimated 23,380 American citizens currently serve in Israeli ranks and at least 25 American citizens have been killed in the fighting since Oct. 7, according to the U.S. State Department.

They are the sons and daughters of parents who moved to the United States or immigrated to Israel. They hold a fierce commitment to the Jewish state and to the need to defend it. But they are equally comfortable in America, living lives that straddle the borders of both countries. They have varying degrees of Jewish religious observance, speak both English and Hebrew, but share a dedication to Zionism, Israel’s national ideology that holds that Jews have the right to self-determination.

The two other American IDF soldiers being held hostage are Omer Neutra, 22, who grew up on Long Island to Israeli-American parents, and Itay Chen 20, who grew up in Israel but vacationed frequently in New York, where his father, Ruby, is a U.S. citizen.

Itay Chen, left, and his mother Hagit Chen. (Courtesy photo)

Itay Chen, left, and his mother, Hagit Chen. (Courtesy photo)

The families of all six of the U.S.-Israeli hostages will join the viewing box for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on March 7. These family members have met with Biden at least twice — once in the Oval Office — and have made numerous trips to Washington, New York and Tel Aviv. Several have also gone to Doha, the capital of Qatar, to plead with leaders there to help free their loved ones.

“We are asking for the help of President Biden and the Israeli government and anyone else in between to put an end to this living hell,” said Ruby Chen. “We just want to go back to being normal people.”

In addition to the three IDF soldiers, the other American-Israeli hostages are Keith Siegel, 64, originally of Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, who was born in Berkeley, California; and Sagui Dekel-Chen, 35, whose father, Jonathan, grew up in Connecticut.

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The families of the American-Israeli hostages have formed a tight bond in the 145 days since Oct. 7, becoming a subgroup within the larger Hostages and Missing Families Forum. They communicate on a WhatsAapp group chat every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and get weekly Zoom updates from State Department officials.

Family members have become acquainted with senior U.S. government officials and rattle off the names of those they have met with numerous times: Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, White House Coordinator for the Middle East Brett McGurk, Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jacob Lew and CIA Director William Burns, to name a few.

Abigail Mor Idan, 4, was taken hostage from Kibbutz Kfar Aza to Gaza after both her parents were killed by Hamas on Oct 7. She was freed during a temporary ceasefire on Nov. 26, and now lives with her aunt and uncle. (Photo courtesy Liz Hirsh Naftali)

Abigail Mor Idan, 4, was taken hostage from Kibbutz Kfar Aza to Gaza after both her parents were killed by Hamas on Oct 7. She was freed during a temporary cease-fire on Nov. 26 and now lives with her aunt and uncle. (Photo courtesy of Liz Hirsh Naftali)

“The American government has been very good at what they’re supposed to do,” said Liz Hirsh Naftali, an Israeli-American who remains part of the group even after the release of her great-niece, Abigail Mor Idan, a 4-year-old girl who was hostage in Gaza and released in November as part of a temporary cease-fire. “That’s been amazing.”

They are more critical of the Israeli government’s response.

“We haven’t had that connection with the prime minister or even the president reaching out to the families and checking in with them and giving them what information they could, which is what we’ve gotten from the U.S. government,” Naftali said.

Still, the families are cautious of any criticism. They want to do everything in their power to see their loved ones freed and don’t want to offend or disrespect anyone who might be of help.

On the morning of Oct. 7, Yael Alexander awoke to an air raid siren in her parents’ Tel Aviv apartment. She had flown in from Tenafly a few days earlier to spend some time with her son Edan over the Sukkot holiday.

The last time she had seen him was in July, when Edan had finished his boot camp training. The whole family celebrated on that occasion and Edan was informed that he would join the Golani Brigade, a highly decorated unit in a base near Gaza.

At 6:30 a.m., when she heard the siren, she immediately texted Edan.

“He texted me right back, telling me that they have alarms also and they’re doing their thing,” Yael said. “He said, ‘Mom, don’t worry.’”

Fifteen minutes later, Yael heard another siren. She texted Edan again. This time there was no response.

“Then, a few minutes before 7:00, he suddenly called me on Whatsapp. He said, ‘Mom, it’s like a war here. You can’t imagine what I’m seeing.’ I started telling him, ‘Be strong, be safe. I’m here by the phone. Keep me posted.’”

That was the last conversation they had.

A few days later, army intelligence officers informed her Edan was taken hostage by Hamas inside Gaza. The officers shared some images of Edan taken from the GoPro cameras the Hamas terrorists had been wearing. He appeared alive and uninjured.

Since then, Yael and Adi’s life has been put on hold as they advocate tirelessly for the hostages’ release. Their younger son, Roy, had been planning a bar mitzvah ceremony in April. They’ve called off the party but will go to synagogue, where Roy will publicly read from the Torah for the first time.

Edan and his siblings are very close.

“It’s a connection that you cannot describe,” said Yael. “He’s everything to them. We are very, very close. He’s my boy. I’m hoping he’s OK.”

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